Well, my middle schoolers are back. I guess they couldn't stay away forever, as I had suggested. My Tuesday/Thursday evening middle school class consists of three, sometimes four, remarkably bright eighth graders who look and act to me as if they are more like 15 or 16. They have a good command of English usage, excellent vocabulary, and stellar class behavior. Their reward? Poetry!
'Tis true. Poetry is not dead. Today I needed a lesson plan for them and I decided we would spend the class reading and discussing "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Most people in the U.S. (and the rest of the English-speaking world? do tell!) recognize the last line, "And miles to go before I sleep." They might even know it's repeated, and that it comes from a poem where a speaker and his horse are in the woods. The first line, "Whose woods these are I think I know," is also reasonably well known by English speakers.
So I decided my brilliant Korean middle schoolers could and should handle it. We started class discussing some key vocabulary: snowy, downy, frozen, harness and queer. After having them make sentences with those words, I next practiced the form "Whose ____ this is I think I know. It's [so-and-so]'s" with various objects in the classroom. Then we moved on to plurals, like "Whose pencils these are, I think I know. They're Emily's." So they were prepared to understand the first line.
Man, it is such a great poem. I'm not afraid to say it. Even after reading it many times over the years, I still physically feel the emotional wallop of that last stanza. Luckily, my students know what a symbol is and does. After we read the poem once, we discussed it stanza by stanza. Then I had them read it again, each student reading the whole thing aloud, and after each reading I would ask a different question about it, like "Which words in the poem help you picture the scene?" (frozen, dark, snowy, horse, etc.) or "Why do we say, 'I promise'?" or "What will happen to our speaker next?" We also talked about the man off in the village, and the fact that the speaker is reflecting on what his horse thinks.
After almost an hour, we were ready to move into the all-important reckoning with the repeated "And miles to go before I sleep," to discern why it would be said twice. I love hearing students offer ideas I hadn't thought of. I articulated for them the idea that the first line keeps us in the literal story, but that repetition really makes us veer off into the symbolic, with "sleep" becoming that final sleep.
Naturally, their homework is to write about their reactions to the poem. I think we will write our own poems next week. I had them write weather-related poems when I had most of these same students in an evening class two (academy-)semesters ago. But now we're getting into meaty stuff.
I do have lots of ideas, but if any of you have suggestions for a poem or two that I should teach to my middle schoolers, feel free to comment!